How to do great Italian accents – ‘Big Night’

I recently watched Big Night because I heard it was a cozy little film for food-lovers. Little did I know that I was in for a dialect treat as well! The movie’s protagonists are two Italian immigrants who run a restaurant in 1950’s New Jersey, starring Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub. I had no idea what to expect from this movie, really, so I was extra pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t only a FANTASTIC movie in and of itself, but the dialects in this movie were outstanding too. Often when actors are aiming for Italian accents, many go for the overly stereotyped Mario & Luigi-type (“It’s-a me, Mario”) accents but thankfully, the actors in Big Night didn’t. Instead, Stanley Tucci honoured his Italian heritage and created a film that delivered great, authentic Italian dialects, both in writing and acting.

First, I want to mention one thing done right in Big Night and that I wish was more common in movies and TV shows: The fact that we get to see Primo and Secondo actually speak English AND Italian. Primo and Secondo have been in America for a while by that point and you can see that they got accustomed to speaking English even with each other. Seeing these two immigrants also use their native tongue with each other and other Italian speakers in the movie is an accurate portrayal of bilinguals and adds authenticity and depth to the characters and the story. In many scenes the characters are using both Italian and English in the same conversation. This is called code-switching and an integral part of how bilinguals use language. You can see this type of code-switching in action in the beach scene closer to the end of the film when both Primo and Secondo speak Italian and English with each other, switching seamlessly between the two languages within the same sentence.

Secondly, I’d like to highlight a couple of things that all tie in to one bigger aspect of non-native accents: The fact that non-native English dialects are rarely completely consistent with their features.

The first feature where we can observe that inconsistency in non-native English accents is to do with verb conjugation in English. English has a remarkably simple conjugation system in the present tense. Most verbs are exactly the same for each person, with the exception of the third singular. That means that a verb like “to eat” will be conjugated as “I eat, you eat, we eat, they eat” but “she/he/it eats”. Many other languages have far more complex conjugation systems than that so non-native speakers of English are often relieved to find out that the verb rarely changes in English, and as a result that 3rd singular ‘s’ can easily slip their mind. This is why you can sometimes hear non-native speakers say things like “he eat” instead of “he eats”. I’m sure many English-speaking actors notice this feature about non-native accents and when they then try to imitate a non-native accent, the first thing they do is drop every single 3rd singular ‘s’. But while non-native speakers are prone to dropping that extra ‘s’, they don’t drop every single one. Often they will remember to add the ‘s’. Just every now and then it slips their mind. The over-generalization of features like this is always a tell-tale sign that the actor is not actually a non-native speaker. Both actors in Big Night did a fantastic job at keeping those 3rd singular suffixes inconsistent, sometimes pronouncing them, and sometimes not.

One really nice detail the actors in Big Night also did right was what’s called H-insertion. Anybody who knows a little bit Italian will know that there is no H sound in Italian. For example the word horrible translates into orribile in Italian. Hs are just not part of the Italian sound system. Additionally, the H sound in English is a very soft sound consisting of air leaving the mouth with only very little obstruction. If your articulators aren’t already used to making this soft action, it is a difficult sound to master. This is the case for many Italians so sometimes it’s just easier for them to drop the H sounds when speaking English. This way a word like here can sound like ear. But non-native speakers do know that dropping Hs is not technically correct in standard English (*it can be in other native English dialects though e.g. Cockney), so they try to pronounce them but here’s where English spelling isn’t very helpful either. Some English words have an H in spelling that is not pronounced either, such as in the words honest and hour. So not only will Italian speakers have to learn how to produce that sound with their articulators, they then also need to learn when to pronounce this sound when speaking English. As a result, Italians sometimes add an H sound in places where there actually is no H in English, so that a word like eat can sound like heat. In Big Night you can hear both Primo and Secondo insert such hyper-corrected Hs. But just like with the 3rd singular ‘s’, non-native speakers are inconsistent with their usage of Hs as well. Primo and Secondo don’t just drop every single H, sometimes they do pronounce it in the right places. They also don’t always insert an H where it shouldn’t be, only every now and then. Tucci and Shalhoub nail this in Big Night. One good example of this occurs around 15 minutes into the movie when you can hear Primo say “say hi for me!” with a clearly audible H sound in hi, immediately followed by a hyper-corrected H-insertion in “you go… hout? “.

The actors and writers of Big Night did many things so wonderfully perfect but making sure their characters’ English is inconsistent definitely deserves extra recognition. Not many movies pay that much attention to detail when it comes to non-native accents but it’s important if you want to respectfully portray a non-native accent and do it justice. It makes the characters much more authentic and believable and as such has a huge impact on the audience’s enjoyment of the film.

Finally, the writers of this movie also get some extra brownie points from me for one of my favorite phrases ever said by a non-native speaker in a movie, which is when Primo said: “Maybe I should make mashed potatoes for on the other side”, instead of saying “for the other side” clearly not fully understanding the concept of ‘side’ being short for ‘side dish’ in English in this context. Learning a new language is difficult and it is normal for non-native speakers to have learned one meaning of a word without knowing how it’s used in another context.

All in all: The dialect work we see in Big Night is just *chef’s kiss*!

Kiwi English and Chain Shifts

Last weekend I rewatched Thor: Ragnarok (aka the best Marvel movie out there) and I realized that I don’t just love this movie because it’s the perfect blend of funny, anti-colonialist, and action-packed but also because it includes some fantastic Kiwi accents with Rachel House as Topaz and of course Taika Waititi himself as Korg. New Zealand English accents sadly are not featured in many mainstream movies of the Northern hemisphere so they’re relatively unknown accents. But they are some of the most fun and beautiful accents (in my opinion) and deserve more recognition.

There’s a lot going on in New Zealand English phonology but in this short post I will only discuss three vowels that are very distinct in Kiwi English due to a fascinating phonological change called a chain shift. A chain shift refers to a series of sound changes that are connected to each other, i.e. when one vowel moves to a new position, another vowel is pushed or pulled away from its original place too. Chain shifts can include many different vowels – in one of the most famous chain shifts, the so-called Great Vowel Shift, pretty much every vowel in Middle English changed drastically. The chain shift I want to discuss here affected three vowels in New Zealand: TRAP, DRESS, and FLEECE.

Here’s what happened to these three vowels in New Zealand English within the last century :

New Zealand English Chain Shift of front vowels (TRAP, DRESS, and KIT).

This gif shows a so-called vowel trapezium which is a tool linguists use to depict approximate positions of vowels within our mouth. The trapezium represents your oral space, from the front of your mouth (=left side of the trapezium) to the back of your mouth (=far right side of the trapezium), as well as your hard palate (=top line) and the very bottom of your mouth (=bottom line). Where we put a vowel in this trapezium will show the tongue’s position, i.e. how high up or low your tongue is for that vowel but also how far back or how front in your mouth. New Zealand accents started out with a similar vowel trapezium to that of modern-day Received Pronunciation (RP) for the TRAP, DRESS and KIT vowels (depicted in brown in the above gif). That means that these tree vowels sounded similar to this:

TRAP, DRESS, and KIT vowels in RP

The first vowel that changed was the one in words like TRAP. This vowel started out being pronounced with quite an open jaw and the tongue resting comfortably in the front of the mouth behind the lower teeth. It then was gradually pronounced with a higher tongue position until it reached a very similar tongue position to DRESS vowels. Because of that, a word like bat in a New Zealand English accent sounds like bet to the American or British listener. You can hear Taika Waititi’s raised TRAP vowels as Korg in the above video in words like that, actually, gladiator, pamphlets or hammer.

You can imagine that TRAP vowels being pronounced so similarly to DRESS vowels can lead to quite some confusion. If bat sounds like bet, how do we know which word the speaker means? To create a clear distinction again, DRESS vowels moved out of the way, approaching the tongue height of KIT vowels. A New Zealand English speaker’s bet now sounds like an American or British English speaker’s bit or sometimes even beet. We can hear this tongue raising for DRESS vowels in Korg’s speech in words like yeah, friend, revolution, sense, perishes, let, weapons, or dead.

With this second vowel raising, DRESS vowels became too similar to KIT vowels and again to avoid misunderstandings, KIT vowels moved away from their original position. This time, however, the tongue was already very high up in the mouth, so there was really nowhere to go towards the top. So instead, the tongue retreated and moved towards the center of the mouth. This way, KIT vowels ended up being pronounced with a very relaxed tongue and now sound very similar to a schwa, i.e. the most relaxed sound your face can make which is a sound similar to the American hesitation sound ‘uh’ . Pronouncing KIT vowels so centrally is arguably the most famous Kiwi English feature, perfectly exemplified by the words fish and chips sounding more like fush and chups. You can also find these centralized and relaxed KIT vowels in Korg’s speech, for example in the words this, it, insect, scissors, interested, or is.

With all this moving around, the TRAP, DRESS, and KIT vowels underwent the following journey in New Zealand English:

The evolution of TRAP, DRESS, and KIT vowels in New Zealand English

Now that you know about these 3 distinctive vowels in Kiwi English, I’m sure you can find some more examples in the speech of everybody’s favorite prime minister Jacinda Ardern in the following video!

On accent reduction and accent discrimination

As a dialect coach living in an international city like Edinburgh, I receive a lot of emails from non-native speakers requesting help to “reduce” their accent. This reflects a general tendency of non-native speakers feeling the need to modify the way they speak English. My clients fear they won’t be able to advance their careers if they don’t alter the way they speak and more generally their accents make them feel self-conscious. As a linguist, dialect coach and non-native English speaker myself it breaks my heart when I see any kind of accent discrimination. In response, I decided to share my thoughts on so-called “accent reduction” both as a linguist and a dialect coach.

I want to start first with discussing the term “accent reduction” because both the term and the practice are controversial. Firstly, I want to say that there’s really no such thing as “reducing” an accent. You can’t just erase some of your features – you will have to replace them with something else. So really, what accent “reduction” is (or should be in my opinion), is teaching you a NEW accent. That per se is not a bad thing. Learning a new accent is like learning a new language: a lot of fun and super interesting. But accent “reduction” regularly includes judgments as to which features are “correct” and which ones are not. It implies that some accents are more acceptable than others. Furthermore, the word “reduction” infers that your natural way of speaking is too much for people who are unfamiliar with your features to deal with it. It implies that your accent is overwhelming for them and that you should take it down a notch. There are two ways to tackle the issue of intelligibility between accents: 1) speakers of non-standard accents modify their accents, or 2) we normalize non-standard accents via increased exposure in media. Option 1) is the norm but why do we rarely see option 2)? (Those two options should not be mutually exclusive by the way). “Accent reduction” is sometimes also referred to as “accent softening”, which isn’t any better because it implies that your native accent is too harsh and unpleasant. Because “accent reduction” and “accent softening” have these negative connotations, some accent coaches instead use the terms “accent modification” or “accent neutralization”. But even those terms still assume that there is an issue with your native accent in the first place that needs changing. If there is no term for this practice that doesn’t make it sound discriminatory it probably isn’t just the term that’s problematic. The practice itself is too, so it’s about time we changed that practice.

I often have prospective clients email me saying that they want to learn how to speak with a “neutral accent”. It takes time to undo this pernicious concept – there is no such thing. Every accent has certain things people associate with it. Even the prime examples that are taught as “neutral” accents, i.e. Received Pronunciation (RP) or Standard American English, are anything but neutral. If you learn how to speak with an RP accent, for example, you might fit right in at Buckingham Palace but when you use that same accent in let’s say Scotland or the United States, people there will still perceive you as an outsider. In short: The “neutrality” of an accent is relative to its surroundings. Therefore, if you want to learn a “neutral” accent, you first have to understand your environment and which accent might be perceived as “neutral” in your specific context.

Just as the neutrality of an accent is relative to its context, so too is its intelligibility. No accent is inherently unintelligible. It all depends on how exposed your listeners have been to your particular accent. Let’s take Scottish accents as an example. Sadly, it’s a trope in movies to have one token Scottish character that is not understood by other characters. The Scottish Disney princess Merida is a great example. In “Wreck-It Ralph 2– Ralph Breaks the Internet” there’s a scene where Vanellope meets all the Disney princesses . All the princesses are having a grand time chatting and laughing with each other but when Merida speaks, nobody seems to understand her. In her own movie “Brave”, however, Merida’s accent’s intelligibility is never questioned; everybody understands her every word. Opposed to all the other Disney princesses (who mostly speak with a Standard American accent), every character in “Brave’” is either Scottish like Merida, or is used to hearing Scottish accents every day. It seems like all the other Disney Princesses haven’t been exposed to much Scottish yet and that’s why in that setting Merida has a harder time being understood than in her own movie. Being better at understanding the accents you hear most often is a natural thing; and it’s not just bound by geography. Film, TV and radio have the great power to show us places AND ACCENTS that are far away from home – which is why so many people have no issues understanding RP even though not many live in places where that accent is frequently spoken. RP is not inherently more intelligible than any other accent but because we are exposed to this particular accent so regularly through film, TV and radio, we are used to its sounds and it seems more intelligible than other accents.

Humans are social animals and as such it is only normal to want to fit in. People are amazing at adapting to their environments and it just so happens that the way you speak is massive part of fitting in. Without noticing, many people participate in something called “code-switching”. Have you noticed that you pronounce things differently when you speak with your granny than when you chat with your colleagues? That’s code-switching. Changing the way you speak depending on your situation is a way of signaling that you and your conversation partner are part of the same group. Your accent is never completely stable, it might change when you move to a new place, or when you give a formal presentation, or when you go back home and speak to your family. Learning a new accent to be used in let’s say a business environment is just another part of code-switching. I have always been an accent chameleon myself. Growing up in Switzerland, speaking a rural Solothurner Swiss German dialect with my family, I accommodated more to my Bernese Swiss German speaking friends when I went to study at uni in Bern. It made sense for me to do the same with my English once I got proficient in it and it felt like my second native language. Studying English at uni, I was obsessed with British television and films so naturally I picked up RP. This didn’t last long: when I met my partner, and through him many American friends and family, I switched my pronunciation to fit in and feel comfortable in this new context. Standard American is the accent I speak with most often now but living in Scotland for the last 4 years, I regularly find myself using Scottish features, especially when talking to locals. Learning all these varieties of English made me more comfortable speaking in each setting respectively. But having learnt these varieties doesn’t mean I lost my native accent – I jump right back into Solothurner Swiss German the moment I’m around my family in Switzerland. It just means I added more tools to my accent belt and have a multitude of accents now that feel like home.

The way you speak can tell other people a lot about your identity and as such accents are an integral part of our identity. It only takes a few instants of hearing someone speak to form an opinion of that person, be it a positive or a negative one. That’s a lot of judging in a very short time based only on how your conversation partner speaks. This kind of judgement can help us identify people who are like us but also results in linguistic discrimination. What’s more is that people tend not to be aware of this judging based on accents – they quickly get an impression and map that to whatever bias they already have about that accent. But they might not be able to articulate that their bias is based on how their conversation partner is speaking. This kind of discrimination affects non-native speakers the hardest and is often intertwined with racism and xenophobia. But it’s not only a problem for non-native speakers. Every now and again, surveys circulate on the internet ranking English accents from “sexiest” to “least intelligent-sounding” and so on. Speakers of RP are regularly rated as “very educated” while Scousers are labelled as “less intelligent” even though of course there are many highly educated people from Liverpool. Part of the reason why this discrimination is happening – and will continue unless we change the game – is the way accents are represented in film, TV and on the radio. Currently, the same few stereotypes are ubiquitous: New York accents for mobsters, Scottish for ruffians, and Valleyspeak for the “dumb” blonde, among others. Film, and other media are such an important part of people’s lives and can have a real influence on how we perceive ourselves and those around us. Let’s take Disney as an example: Many kids grow up with and love Disney’s productions. They play a powerful part in a child’s development of their identity – and of their opinion of others. Given this immense impact of Disney movies on young minds, it’s especially sad to see that they don’t feature a wider variety of accents, but instead keep regurgitating standard accents with only every now and then sprinkling in the same few harmful stereotypes of non-standard accents. Representation also matters in regards to accents! Until we change the representation of accents in film and other media and redefine what kind of character speaks with which type of accent, the issue persists and speakers of certain accents will feel self-conscious about their accent and might even feel the need to modify it. As a dialect coach, I hope I can contribute to changing this rhetoric and help getting more non-standard accents featured in mainstream movies and TV shows without relying on stereotypes.

Accent discrimination is very wide-spread and often goes unnoticed or ignored even though it can have real implications for a person’s career and in general makes the world a less welcoming, more judgmental place. We linguists can actively seek conversations and try to educate people on accent discrimination and stop people from even forming those hurtful biases against nonstandard accents in the first place, let alone let those biases affect their practices. That means reforming the way we teach languages and educating as many people as possible. Moreover, nonstandard accents need better representation in movies, TV shows and on the radio and employers need to actively stop accent discrimination in the workplace. Doing all this is a biiiiiiiiiiiig task that will take years if not decades to achieve. In the meantime, accent discrimination is a reality for many people and it causes them to be treated unfairly based on their accent. That’s why I offer accent coaching for non-actors. I want to teach my clients that having a non-native or a non-standard accent isn’t a bad thing while also building their confidence. I want them to see how awesome their own accent is and that they don’t need to feel ashamed of it or even lose it. Plus, by teaching them a new accent instead of modifying their own accent, they will learn to appreciate another accent IN ADDITION to their own. I hope my sessions will make them want to share what they’re learning with their friends and colleagues. The more accents we are aware of and exposed to without leaning on stereotypes, the less we are biased against accents and their speakers and this way we can hopefully start making an end to accent discrimination.